This week we have a guest article from Daniel Metser! Daniel is a basketball performance and skills trainer based in Boston, MA. He provides in depth content on basketball skills, individual and team tactics, NBA/NCAAB trends, and much more! Follow him on Instagram @kinetic_chain and Twitter @dannymetser for more basketball content!
Note: This article has a corresponding youtube video which you can watch to better visualize the reading!
A Detailed Look At Backscreens
As basketball continues to evolve, players’ skills keep getting better over time. Though statistics have shown that isolation basketball is a relatively inefficient form of offense, it’s tempting to think “why not just give the best players the ball and let them generate offense?” My response to that is, “why not make basketball as easy as possible?”
In this article, I will be discussing what backscreens are, when and how they’re used, why they’re so effective and still not utilized enough in today’s game, but also the best strategies to defend them.
What is a backscreen?
A backscreen is an off-ball screen set, more or less, facing toward the half court line or opposite baseline, contrary to a pindown where the screener faces their own baseline. How exactly the screener will orient their body to set the screen depends on how the cutter’s defender’s body is positioned and where exactly the screen is being set (wing vs. top of the key). The screener can also choose to start setting their screen right up against the cutter’s defender’s body or leave a little space so that when the cutter starts cutting, they can move in such a way that makes their defender run into the screener. I’ll talk about these nuances later.
Screens are meant to force the defense to make tough decisions. A common trend on backscreens, especially in the pros, is that teams will use their best shooter(s) as the screener. Oftentimes, a team’s best perimeter shooter is a guard. Having a guard setting picks may seem counterintuitive, but it’s important to recognize that the contact itself created by the screen is not necessarily the most impactful part of the action (though it’s certainly still an important component). Similar to how bigs sometimes slip their ballscreens on hedges, if the screener senses his man is preparing to commit to the cutter, he will pop out to the 3 point line before even getting both feet set for a “solid” screen. It’s important that the cutter and screener get pretty far away from each other as the action progresses, as this makes it even more difficult for the defense to effectively cover both players. The better the screener is at shooting 3s, the higher the likelihood is that the cutter and screener’s defender both stay with him. And it’s kind of astonishing how many wide open layups are given up as a result even in the NBA.
As a byproduct of the screener oftentimes being a decent ball handler as well, if a 3 off of the relocation or “pop” is not open, the action can flow into a handoff with the passer and the backscreener, among other subsequent actions.
It is probably most optimal for the cutter to be the team’s best all-around scorer, or, if the team’s best 3 point shooter is also the best scorer, the 2nd best scorer, though I have seen a variety of players take on the role. The cutter should aim to come off the screen in such a way that his defender bumps right into the screen, delaying their next steps or movement as much as possible. The cutter should reveal as little info as possible that a backscreen is coming leading up to it, and possibly even use deception with the eyes and body alignment to make his defender think that something else will happen; the surprise and “invisibility” of a backscreen is part of what makes it unique and effective. This quality shouldn’t be compromised through an inability to disguise the action and remain relaxed, and then accelerate past the screen at the instant it’s set. If the cutter feels he won’t get the ball, it’s ideal for him to continue moving and to quickly relocate to an open spot on the 3 point line.
The passer doesn’t necessarily have to be the team’s best playmaker, but having a big that is good at passing works well. They are good enough at making reads, can see over the top of the defense with ball pressure, and can set screens themselves if neither the cutter or backscreener end up having a shot initially. It’s even more important for the passer to utilize some deception by not staring right at the action the whole time. The more help defenders are unprepared for the action, the higher the chance is of them not rotating at all.
Lastly, it’s important that the other two players (not directly involved in the action) are good spot up shooters to give the cutter the best chance of being open and allow for sufficient spacing.
Why Do They Work?
As was mentioned a little earlier, a simple but huge reason backscreens are effective is because defenders guarding the cutter are essentially blindsided on the screens. On pindowns, ball screens, or even flare screens, defenders can see where the screen is coming from, which allows them to react more effectively. This is usually not the case with backscreens. Although teams can game plan ahead of time about how they’re going to defend the play, once a screen has been set, defenders have a split second to decide what the best course of action will be. Oftentimes, the cutter’s defenders’ first instinct when they feel they’re being screened is to fight through the screen to stay with their man. The problem with this is that it puts the screener’s defender in an extremely tough spot; they either give up an open 3 through miscommunication, or, as stated before, they stay glued to the screener and trust that a weak side help defender will shift over to prevent a wide open layup (because the cutter’s defender usually can’t fight through the screen fast enough). In addition, weak side defenders are not nearly as aware that they’ll need to tag the cutter (to prevent these wide open layups) during a backscreen action as they are during P&R. It appears that this is the case because help defenders are taught to see the ball and their man and thus, in the moment, don’t think to focus as much of their attention on actions farthest away off the ball.
I’ve just described what can happen when both the screener and cutter’s defender try to stay with their men. There are essentially three other ways they can choose to defend it: 1) The screener’s defender stays with his man, but the cutter’s defender tries to switch (this is considerably less common as it is a massive defensive lapse) 2) The screener’s defender switches onto the cutter, but the cutter’s defender stays with the cutter (pretty common) or 3) Both defenders switch men.
In the 2nd scenario, it’s clear how important it is that the screener is a great 3 point shooter, as it's the most open shot in this case. He needs to be an adaptable shooter that can efficiently and quickly shoot using various sets of footwork (i.e, hopping, planting left-right, right-left, etc.).
Switching is when this gets a little interesting. If there is enough of a size discrepancy between the screener and cutter, the offense can take advantage of a mismatch and isolate one or the other. Before settling for this though, the screener should try to seal his new man being that the defender will be behind him, and in order to take full advantage of this, the cutter should rim-run and then immediately clear out and relocate as fast as possible. A way for the screener to be proactive on switches is to “slip” the screen and relocate or get to an open space inside the arc, as his new man will be even further out of position.